“Dear Trolls”: A form letter media can use to tell right-wing mobs where to shove it

Journalists need to stop being defensive about "appearances" and push back against bad-faith attacks. Here's how

Published May 29, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Monster Letter Typing (Getty Images)
Monster Letter Typing (Getty Images)

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The following is my response to Stanford journalism professor Janine Zacharia's plea for news organizations to develop a "straightforward protocol" for responding to "targeted campaigns that seek to undermine the legitimacy of news organizations and obscure the facts around conflicts."

Dear [provocateur demanding something of your news organization],

I am [name], the [title] of  [news organization], which employs a staff of [number] reporters and editors who toil tirelessly every day to make sure the citizens of the [world/nation/state/community] are exposed to the facts they need to make responsible, reality-based decisions in their daily lives and occasional elections. 

I personally am responsible for their work, and their safety. 

I reject your [groundless/bad-faith/deceptive/trollish/attention-seeking] demand to [whatever their demand is].

I recognize you have managed to get [Fox News/Washington Free Beacon/the Federalist/Ben Shapiro/Tom Cotton/Marjorie Taylor Greene/Tucker Carlson/Donald Trump] to amplify your claim that our continued employment of [X] "fuels concerns" about our objectivity in covering [topic A]. 

But what you are saying is nonsense.

Why your request is nonsense

The reporter you mention, [X], has nothing to do with [topic A]. 

[X] works in [location B], covering [topic B], not in [location A] covering [topic A]. 

And even if [X] worked in [location A] covering [topic A], your concerns would be badly misplaced.

Reporters are human beings. The best reporters have empathy and curiosity — and opinions. Often, they went through the process of developing those opinions as young people. We benefit from their opinions, and their passions. We value them.

When they join our organization, we make it very clear that they need to adhere to the highest professional standards in journalism. That doesn't mean renouncing their opinions, or never having had any. It means not allowing their opinions to get in the way of fairly gathering, assessing and presenting facts.

This is a marvelous and unique profession, quite unlike [yours].

So, for instance, [yours] engages in proselytization, not journalism. You set out to make and win arguments, and you ignore facts that don't support your argument. Or you simply make up alternate facts that suit you better.

By contrast, reporters may personally vote one way or the other, or support the rights of [certain kinds of humans], but they make a professional commitment to actively and empathetically explore all sides of the stories they work on, and present the facts regardless of whether those facts would tend to support one argument or another. 

Our profession has standards. We teach, promote, amend and enforce our standards as we go. Occasionally reporters may fail to meet those standards, and that's why we have editors. They edit. We also have managers to help offer guidance and support to reporters when and if they are struggling. 

Generally speaking, we ask our staff not to say things in public or social media that might reasonably cast doubts on their ability — or our newsroom's devotion — to doing their job without fear or favor. But that's basically an internal concern — and one which, as it happens, we're rethinking. 

It has nothing to do with the actual work product, which is what really matters.  

What your request is really about

More to the point, however, is that your request is not in good faith. You are not trying to point out an actual problem. You are not trying to help us make our journalism better.

You are not actually worried about how [X] will cover [topic A] from [location A]. 

How could you be? 

There is nothing sincere or organic about your request. You are simply trying to cause us trouble and discredit us.

It is also not a coincidence that you are raising this issue while trying to discredit our coverage of [topic A], where we apparently do not meet your standards of credulous adherence to your own views.

What you are doing is engaging in a disinformation campaign. You are trying to distract from the real story. You are trying to confuse readers. You are trying to raise doubts about our devotion to reporting the facts, even as you are trying to make us and our reporters afraid to report the facts.

We are concerned about trust, and we want people to believe we are being fair. But we've finally realized, over a great deal of time, that people who simply don't like what we do will sometimes manipulate those concerns and use them as weapons against us. 

In particular, we've come to the conclusion that worrying about "appearances" — especially in social media — hands way too much power to culture warriors who hate what we do and want to shut us up, by whatever means necessary. 

We have, at long last, recognized that we are highly vulnerable to disinformation and propaganda campaigns that actually harm our democracy — and that it's time for us to fight back. 

So where does that leave us?

Obviously, we won't honor your bad-faith request — and certainly not at the expense of a talented person like [X].

What would it say about our institution if we did otherwise?

Not only would we be encouraging you, we'd be encouraging the next [groundless/bad-faith/deceptive/trollish/attention-seeking] person who comes along.

We'd be sending a confusing and distressing message to our staff, which would be immensely damaging to our morale and our credibility.

We'd be endorsing the notion that reporters should have no opinions — or should at least appear not to have opinions.

We would be attacked and ridiculed by people who actually hold us to high standards because they want us to succeed. We'd much rather defend ourselves from you than from people who are appropriately outraged that we caved to you.

You, meanwhile, can of course keep on saying whatever you want. That's your right. 

We know we will never make you happy. But we refuse to make you cocky.

Moving forward

We encourage and welcome good-faith criticism of our work. We know we can always do better. Particularly in the absence of an ombudsperson or public editor, we rely on our readers — and, for better and for worse, social media in particular — to challenge us and keep us honest

We should probably respond to good-faith criticism more often, and less defensively. 

So even as we categorically reject your demand, we would like to take a moment to encourage people who have real concerns to reach out to our reporters and editors — on social media and elsewhere.

Likewise, we encourage our staff to respond politely, explain their process and their decisions and, on occasion, discuss with their superiors the possibility of doing things differently in the future.  

We don't mind it when our journalists and our journalism is harshly questioned. That's to be expected. We can take it. But when attacks become particularly vitriolic and personal — especially if they include attacks based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religious background and other markers of human diversity — they cross the line into harassment. As an institution, we will do what we need to protect our staff from that kind of harassment — and if necessary we will fight back.

We will of course retain our policies against conflicts of interest, such as rules that explicitly forbid profiteering and favoritism, or when common sense dictates that someone is too personally or professionally compromised to cover a certain issue.

We will continue to encourage our staff not to say things that would give reasonable people cause to think they are not listening to all sides and giving them a fair hearing.

But rather than worrying so much about "appearances," or about some mythical notion of objectivity, we will strive to be more open with readers about what we consider thee normative views of our profession — even as we continue to question ourselves about whose norms those are.

We will also be discussing how and whether we should more aggressively counter disinformation campaigns like your own.

Meanwhile, we at [news organization] show the [world/nation/state/community] who we are, what we stand for and what we do — every hour of every day.

Have a real issue with that? Let us know.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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